Law is broken. That’s the common refrain among legal entrepreneurs and open law visionaries looking to “disrupt” how law is accessed and practiced. Two conferences – ReInvent Law Silicon Valley and Stanford’s CodeX FutureLaw 2013 – brought together students, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, lawyers, and academics to look at how innovation in the practice of law could make legal services cheaper, faster, better, and more accessible. Like the $6 million dollar man, we have the technology. Following are some of the areas where law students will likely encounter it:
Document Drafting & Attorney Referral. With the web it’s now possible for your uncle to draft a simple will for $99 instead of paying an attorney much, much more.
Data & Analytics. More computing power, more data, better decisions…? “Big data” is here and there are legions of companies generating and sorting bits and bytes to help firms improve workflows.
Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). Cheap, fast and extra-judicial. ODR already resolve tens of millions of disputes a year and they’re looking for more.
Visualization. Design is all the rage these days, and well-crafted legal visualization distills data and informs users. Part art, part science, often cool -- the ways in which users interact with legal data are being re-examined and re-built.
Today’s post explores disruptions in law with respect to document drafting and attorney referral. Future posts will cover developments in data & analytics, ODR and visualization.
Law Disrupted, Part 1: Document Drafting & Attorney Referral
There’s a common pitch among legal entrepreneurs that everyone should have access to legal services, not just those with deep pockets. LegalZoom and RocketLawyer attempt to do just that. Both allow the average person to draft simple legal documents for a fraction of the cost of an attorney. If desired, consultations with a lawyer can be had for a modest fee. These sites also have attorney referral components for trickier situations. The DIY document-drafting concept isn’t new (Nolo Press has been publishing self-help books for more than 40 years) but the web has made access easier and a blitz of TV commercials has increased awareness. Even so, while the pitch is perfect, not everyone cares for the tune.
In theory, fast, cheap, and widespread access to legal services sounds good but in practice it’s made waves with both lawyers and consumers. There are murmurs that the lower cost, while a boon for consumers, has also “destroyed the small estate planning practices” in parts of the country or at least interfered with the will-drafting-to-probate pipeline that some attorneys take for granted. LegalZoom has also run afoul of laws on the unauthorized practice of law in Missouri (see Janson v. LegalZoom.com, Inc., 802 F. Supp. 2d 1053 (W.D. Mo. 2011). With several bar associations joining the fray, more fights are expected in other states. Finally, there are claims of attorneys having to undo the damage that boilerplate legal documents have caused. Even with the best decision trees, one size does not always fit all.
Regardless of which side of the debate you take it’s clear that consumers are hungry for simple, affordable legal services. LegalZoom and RocketLawyer are companies whose technological innovations meet Clayton Christensen’s criteria for “disruptive” (see Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997)). They are tapping one of the cheapest markets in legal services and it will be interesting to see if they start to move “upmarket” over time.
- Jon Ashley